It’s time for private spaceflight to start making good on its promises. And in 2018, hopefully it will do just that.
From SpaceX’s long-promised first flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket to NASA’s plan to contract private companies to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station, 2018 should be the year when spaceflight companies start meeting many of their long-touted goals.
“I’m looking forward to a lot of past promises becoming reality,” John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said in an interview.
And how many promises there are.
This year should mark the launch of SpaceX’s much-anticipated Falcon Heavy rocket, the big launcher expected to start flying payloads to Mars and other deep space destinations in the near future.
The one problem is that SpaceX has been promising its first test launch of the Falcon Heavysince about 2015. That said, it’s looking like a sure bet that we’ll get some kind of Falcon Heavy launch this year.
The large rocket — which pretty much looks like three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together — is already rolled out to its pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and it’s expected to make its maiden voyage by the end of January.
This first Falcon Heavy will fly with a red Tesla Roadster nested atop it, and Musk has promised that one way or another, it’s going to be a pretty epic test flight.
“The larger Falcon Heavy will enable SpaceX to compete to carry the largest satellites, while still reusing first stages,” space industry analyst Bill Ostrove said in an interview. “The Falcon Heavy will also enable SpaceX to conduct missions to deeper space. The first Falcon Heavy to launch will be sent on an Earth escape trajectory, proving the usefulness of the launch vehicle for those types of missions.”
“It’s important to note that a large market has not yet materialized for the Falcon Heavy,” he added. “Most current missions can be accommodated by the Falcon 9, especially newer variants, which have higher lift capacity.”
That said, there might be more of an “if you build it, they will come” mentality to this rocket, Ostrove said. Once SpaceX proves that the Falcon Heavy is reliable, more companies and countries may be interested in flying their expensive wares aboard it.
SpaceX is also coming off a high in 2017, which included 18 rocket launches, more than the company ever had in a year before and continuing to land the first stages of their Falcon 9 rockets after launch payloads to space.
The Musk-founded company needs to keep up this cadence — hopefully increasing it to 30 launches for 2018, Ostrove said — and focus on getting its crewed Dragon capsule to the International Space Station for NASA, another deferred promise by the company and agency.
Initially, it was expected that SpaceX would start flying NASA astronauts to the Space Station as early as 2015, but it didn’t exactly pan out.
Development and budgetary delays prevented the company from meeting that target, but 2018 looks like it’s shaping up to be SpaceX’s year for commercial crew.
“SpaceX plans to conduct the first crewless launch of a human-rated Dragon in April, with a crewed flight to follow in August. SpaceX would then be able to begin operational flights to the ISS [International Space Station] for NASA,” Ostrove said.
SpaceX isn’t the only company with promises left unfulfilled in the past few years.
Boeing is also expected to start flying people to the Space Station for NASA as part of the commercial crew program this year. Like SpaceX, Boeing is also expected to fly a crewed and an uncrewed flight of its Starliner ahead of more regular flights for NASA in the future.
“I think the odds are good that at least one of the two [Boeing or SpaceX] will fly a test pilot in 2018,” Logsdon said.
Quite a few other spaceflight companies could also rack up some wins in 2018.
It’s possible that Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin could launch powered test flights with crew of their suborbital vehicles in the months to come, though it’s unclear which company will make it to the edge of space with paying customers first.
A smattering of small launch providers like Rocket Lab and Vector may also come online in the next year.
While the market appears to be large for these small launchers, not to mention for SpaceX, Boeing, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin, only time (and test launches) will reveal just how viable their plans are.
Let’s just hope that they all prove out their promises a bit more in the next 12 months, or all we’ll be left with are more promises yet unrealized.